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Christian student group seeks a revival

It was a reunion of sorts as people of faith from around the globe gathered here to celebrate nearly a century of interchurch fellowship under the umbrella of the World Student Christian Federation.

For much of the 20th century the federation was on the cutting edge of church and campus life, situated at the sometimes volatile intersection of religion and politics and closely aligned with the worldwide ecumenical movement.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed by the Nazis, was one of the movement's most famous members, and in the 1960s the organization was caught up in the drama of the radical political movements of the day.

But the graying audience of about 75 at the Feb. 5-6 meeting here, most of them older than 50, told the tale of the federation.

By the 1970s the federation fell on hard times, losing most of its student base as the younger generation turned more conservative and began leaning toward evangelical groups like Campus Crusade for Christ and the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

However, participants mingled reminiscences of times past with talk of the future, and promises of an effort to revive the ecumenical student Christian movement became a major part of the meeting.

"This is the first time in 20 years in this country that the student Christian movement is emerging again," said Verlyn Barker, president of the World Student Christian Federation of the U.S.A. "We are here to develop strong ties so that we can relate to generations to come."

"We are here to remember the past so that we can serve the future," said Dodie Younger, co-chairwoman of the event and former general director of Church Women United. "This involves all of us as supportive partners."

The federation recently launched a campaign to raise $1-million by next year as part of an effort to bolster the movement in the United States.

Founded in 1895, the federation is one of the first and oldest international student organizations. A pioneer in the modern ecumenical movement, the federation helped establish the World Council of Churches in 1948.

Today the Geneva-based federation operates in 90 countries with regional offices in Amsterdam, Holland; Beirut, Lebanon; Hong Kong; Nairobi, Kenya; and Quito, Ecuador. It serves as a consultant for the United Nations.

Jean-Francois Delteil, co-secretary general of the World Student Christian Federation, told the gathering: "God calls students into fellowship with one another across barriers of race to work for peace and justice. It is because of this calling that we are gathered today."

While the federation is weak in North America, strong movements exist in Germany, Nigeria, India and Indonesia, according to Delteil. Movements in Portugal, Singapore and Hong Kong are said to be growing.

Movement building is at the top of the federation's agenda, Delteil reported, noting that the harvest is ripe, with 59-million students enrolled in higher education worldwide and millions more in secondary schools.

"We have to figure out how the World Student Christian Federation can develop ministry in this context," he said.

Other major concerns involve leadership training for women, economic education, human rights and democratization, according to Delteil.

"We should examine our role as a student organization and what kind of witness of presence we should have," he said. "How can we build a community where students feel welcome?"

An African-American participant suggested that federation members reach out to African-American students in the National Baptist Convention and other black organizations.

"Look around _ there aren't many of us here," she said.

Corinne Quinn, an African-American pre-med student at Barnard College in New York City, said her interest in the federation was sparked by her brother's involvement.

"I have a lot of hope in youth today," she said.

Sonia Strawn, a professor at Methodist Theological Seminary in Seoul, South Korea, reported that the student Christian movement there is "growing and booming."

"It is important to remind the church that students are a part of it and need to be included in its totality," said Berlin Barker of the United Church of Christ. "There is no question about whether God will have witnesses in the next decade."

The question, Barker said, is "what part the church will play in that witness."

1994, Religious News Service